by Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
PORT ORANGE -- City leaders plan to take the first step in replacing thousands of faulty water meters that were partly to blame for the ongoing water billing scandal.
North Carolina-based manufacturer Sensus intends to change out failed meters still under warranty at no cost to the city. The meters are designed to record a property owner's water consumption.
"This step will not solve all non-read or zero read issues but appears to quickly resolve the large majority of the meter issues at no cost to the City of Port Orange," said Ken Hooper, the project manager overseeing the meter replacement. Replacing meters under warranty would cost $426,000, including parts and labor, at the expense of Sensus, he said.
Mr. Hooper recommended the city proceed with the replacements and see how the new Sensus meters perform before they decide whether or not to approve the purchase of 1,027 water meters and 3,356 transmitters from Sensus, which would cost about $647,000.
But knowing the city's experience with Sensus meters has not been good -- and that other municipalities with Sensus meters had similar results -- city leaders are hesitant to purchase meters from the company to replace the failed meters no longer under warranty.
"A year or two down the road we could still have the same problem (we have now)," Councilman Drew Bastian said. "To me, it doesn't make sense. You just replace junk with junk."
Vice Mayor Don Burnette said he "doesn't want to be held hostage" to continue the city's business relationship with Sensus in the long term, given the meter failures. Most council members instead wish to buy meters from a competitor, Neptune Technology Group, which has several meters installed in the city with no failures reported so far.
"I would resist doing anything that puts one more Sensus meters in the ground," Mr. Burnette said. "It's not proven technology."
He did, however, say replacing the meters under warranty is a workable short-term solution.
"If they're (Sensus) paying for it and the meters are free and we're replacing them, in two years that's not necessarily a bad thing," Mr. Burnette said, "because we can replace them with a different meter and we've deferred the costs to a more regular business schedule."
Mr. Hooper was expected to give a presentation to city leaders on Tuesday on a status report on the water meter system. Details of the presentation were not available before press time.
While faulty meters were part of the problem of the water billing undercharge to Daytona Beach Shores that cost the city over $1 million, the majority of the scrutiny has focused on broken internal controls in the finance department. Two employees, finance director John Shelley and customer service manager Betty Barnhart, retired after being blamed for the scandal.
City staff is currently working to fix the existing system.
Assistant City Manager Shannon Lewis recently told city leaders that meter reading staff will receive additional training to successfully deploy the new water meters and to ensure those meters will be tracked so when a problem occurs, staff can identify which meter is experiencing the issue.
A change to the billing system involving a courtesy call warning to customers who haven't paid their bill will be implemented next month, something City Manager Ken Parker said has been tried in other cities with success.
Ms. Lewis said the city is also looking to hire new staff to fill open positions in the finance department, including the customer service director and the purchasing coordinator. Hiring a new finance director will also be a priority.
In other business, council members finalized a contract with incoming city manager Greg Kisela, who will receive an annual base salary of $135,000. His contract allows him to perform "contract employee services as directed by the City Council" until he officially becomes the new city manager on March 1. Mr. Kisela told city leaders he wanted to start work early to ensure a seamless transition.